By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
(New)Garden of Eden
There are a few places in the Verizon IndyCar Series that some would consider paradise.
For the sport’s oldest supporters, no location compares to victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. West Coast fans often point to the prestigious Long Beach street circuit. Some prefer the history of tracks like Road America, while others like the sheer excitement of ovals like Texas Motor Speedway.
For Roger Penske, though?
Recently it’s been wherever Josef Newgarden is found.
The Tennessean joined Team Penske as the sport’s hottest free agent going into the 2017 season, and expectations were high. Newgarden had improved in each of his five IndyCar seasons, rising from a rookie back marker in 2012 to become a consistent podium contender with three wins to his name as he moved up the tour’s hierarchy.
Expectations were high. Newgarden was brought in as a replacement for open wheel legend Juan Pablo Montoya, who was ultimately shifted over to Penske’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship effort ahead of the 2018 season.
The move was a questionable one. Montoya had suffered from a rare disappointment in 2016, but he was just one year removed from a 2015 that had seen him win the Indianapolis 500 and end the season in a legitimate tie for the points lead before losing the title on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon.
Newgarden was relatively quiet for the first few months of his Penske debut. He earned a crucial win in the third race of the season at Barber Motorsports Park and showed early consistency, but a disappointing Month of May knocked the American star back to seventh in the standings.
Then the pairing clicked.
In the 13 IndyCar races held since last season’s Indy 500, Newgarden has scored more podiums (eight) than finishes outside of the top three (five). He’s finished inside of the top two in six of the last eight races, earning four victories and the 2017 IndyCar championship in the process.
Tim Cindric and Team Penske have delivered excellent strategies, and Newgarden has capitalized time after time to great success. Simply put, he has been remarkably consistent in a series where finding consistency is as challenging as any tour in motorsport.
As a result he’s ascended from a favorite of hardcore fans to become arguably the face of the series in the span of a year.
There were worries that Newgarden couldn’t maintain his strong speed from 2017 when Penske began the season with a disappointing opener in St. Petersburg. But the 27-year-old was right back in contention on Saturday at ISM Raceway, taking advantage of the late pit strategy to surge to his first win of the new year in the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix.
The result came after a host of brave moves that carried Newgarden to victory. But in typical fashion, he credited the victory to his team.
“I don’t think I did anything tonight,” he said. “This was a team victory. They gave me the pit stops, they had the strategy, I was working with rocket scientist on the pit stand – those guys are awesome, but it was a team effort.”
Regardless the cause, Newgarden’s back atop the IndyCar standings. After a half-decade of listening to how good he could be, the young star continues to prove just how talented and capable he truly is when provided the resources needed to succeed.
Rossi Steals the Show
For the second-straight race, two of the three biggest stories leaving an IndyCar event were Wickens and Rossi.
This time, neither story was negative.
Wickens earned the better finish of the two, slotting in second after an impressive oval debut. But it was Rossi that put on the better show of the pairing, overcoming an early mistake on pit road to make a lap back under green and soar to a third-place result.
Rossi was one of the event’s biggest contenders early on, rising to the front of the field and challenging for a podium position during the opening run. However, the Californian trapped himself in a steep hole during the first round of stops when he slid into one of his crewmen on pit entry, resulting in a slow stop and a drive-through penalty from the stewards on the ensuing green-flag run.
The third-year IndyCar ace had arguably the fastest car in the field, but his No. 27 Honda was trapped a lap down after his penalty – a margin that’s much more difficult to close in open wheel than in NASCAR, where opportunities like the free pass and wave-around assist multiple drivers throughout the race.
“We had a strong start but then had a mishap on the first stop,” Rossi said. “It was unfortunate, but the important thing is that my crew is okay, that’s always my first concern. I didn’t challenge the box that hard, it was a stop under yellow so there wasn’t a need to – I went to turn right to line up and (the car) just went straight.”
There would be no timely cautions or assists from race control to send Rossi back to the lead lap. Instead, the recent “Amazing Race” participant set upon unlapping himself.
In the end Rossi managed just that, rising back onto the lead lap in the final 100 laps and completing a methodical drive through the field that stood in stark contrast to those complaining that it was impossible to pass on the unique one-mile oval.
With the laps winding down Rossi found himself within range of not just a podium, but the race win itself. The 26-year-old trailed the leaders by less than three seconds when a late caution flew for a crashing Ed Jones. The ensuing run of pit strategy didn’t work out in his favor, but Rossi still managed to carry his Andretti Autosport Honda home in third, becoming the only driver to earn podiums in each of the first two races of the season.
Afterward Rossi was left feeling bittersweet, having settled for a podium with a car he felt warranted a victory.
“The Military To Motorsports Honda was by far the best car on track, I think, and it deserved to win,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be today, but I’m happy to stand on the podium.”
While he didn’t score the victory, Rossi’s recovery netted him yet another strong points showing. The Indy 500 champion currently sits second in the series standings, just five points behind Newgarden for the top spot after the best opening stint the star has managed in his young career.
All aboard the hype train.
It wasn’t enough that Robert Wickens claimed the pole for his first-ever IndyCar start. Nor was it enough that he dominated the day to find himself in position to win before late contact with Alexander Rossi sent his race awry.
There was no way to deny how impressive Wickens had been in his series debut. But that was only one race. The rookie’s talent was undeniable. But fair or not, the run could be attributed at least partially to a strong car and a stroke of beginner’s luck.
But after Wickens managed the feat again in Phoenix – in his oval debut, no less – the Canadian’s legitimacy as an early championship contender can no longer be denied.
Wickens has led 113 laps in his first two IndyCar starts, leading the field by 23 circuits over second-place Sebastien Bourdais. The 29-year-old’s 3.5 average starting position is second only to Will Power (2.5), and he sits eighth in the championship standings, just three points behind Scott Dixon despite his crash out in St. Pete.
Early success for a rookie isn’t totally unprecedented. But coming home with a runner-up result on the tricky Phoenix oval was a feat that exceeded even his own expectations.
“It’s a dream come true,” Wickens said of his run. “All I wanted to do was finish every lap of my oval debut. So, to come home P2 and even lead tonight, you can never expect that as a rookie. It’s so hard here, but the team did a great job. The car was great all day.”
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) have had plenty of cause for optimism through their first two races of the season.
The acquisition of renowned female engineer Leena Gade has appeared to pay early dividends, with established name James Hinchcliffe sitting sixth in the standings. But that was expected, given Gade’s acumen and Hinchcliffe’s talent.
Wickens’ early success has been much more surprising. After years of toiling around the mid-pack with their second car, SPM finally appear to have found the key to success in the form of a former DTM driver with longstanding open wheel ambitions.
Whether the pairing will continue to yield such impressive results moving forward remains to be seen. But if there’s one thing they’ve proven by contending at two tracks that stand far apart on the IndyCar spectrum, it’s that success is now an undeniable expectation, not an unexpected surprise.
The result didn’t ultimately match the hopes attributed to it, but Marco Andretti’s retro No. 98 Honda was still a beautiful sight to see cruising in the Arizona desert.
The third-generation star paid homage to grandfather Mario Andretti’s final indy car win 25 years earlier, driving a car with a livery similar to the one Mario piloted in his final Phoenix win a quarter-century ago. Handling woes ultimately relegated Marco to a 12th-place result, but the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver’s throwback scheme was still the talk of the paddock throughout the weekend.
Seeing the retro livery fostered conversation of a potential IndyCar throwback weekend, where all teams could show support for the sport’s history and run schemes that harken back to the days of old. The concept wouldn’t be unprecedented – NASCAR holds an official throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend each year, and the ARCA Racing Series schedule features a throwback race at Salem Speedway in the fall. The CARS Tour also tested the concept at Hickory Speedway last August.
IndyCar joining the throwback fun would risk the concept becoming too watered down, but the tour also arguably makes the most sense for such a weekend. The sport’s history traces back more than a century, with races dating back as far as the first decade of the 1900s. That provides a multitude of livery options that other tours like NASCAR can’t quite match.
Make no mistake – IndyCar tour doesn’t need a throwback weekend. In fact, the absence of one makes liveries like Marco’s and the bright yellow schemes Helio Castroneves has occasionally ran in the Indy 500 feel all the more special.
Still, there is potential for money to made and publicity to be gained with the concept. If INDYCAR officials wanted to test it, they would be best served to reach out to a track on the schedule that holds a deep tradition in the sport’s history – perhaps Road America or Long Beach.
Sebastien Bourdais benefitted from a mistake from his competitors to win a race he arguably shouldn’t have in St. Pete.
He made up for it by giving the Phoenix race away.
Bourdais claimed the pole and led early in Saturday’s event. But he found himself trapped a lap down after the first round of pit stops when he made the same mistake as Rossi, sliding into a crewmember on pit road and forcing the stewards to assess him a penalty. He fought back, but rose only to 13th by race’s end.
“I didn’t pay attention that my tires loaded up with a bunch of junk and next thing I knew I was on the concrete in the pit lane,” Bourdais said. “I tried to slow down and locked up the wheels instantly and nothing happened. Nothing. I just skated and two guys left with me.
“That was the failed moment of the race because after that there were no yellows until all the pit stops were completed. So, that was that.”
The Frenchman’s error was critical, relegating himself to a result that dropped him to third in the championship standings. That doesn’t sound like a huge loss, but IndyCar traditionally has a razor-thin margin of error for championship contenders, particularly when they stem from a team like Dale Coyne Racing that is conceivably less equipped to bounce back than a traditional power like Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing.
Bourdais is still in position to contend for wins heading into what could be a redemptive Month of May. But don’t be surprised if his Phoenix mistake comes into play later in the year.
Wickens wasn’t the only rookie that looked good early on, but he was the lone one that made his solid run last until the checkered flag.
Fellow prospects Kyle Kaiser and Pietro Fittipaldi each contended for positions in the top 10 in the early stages of the race, but the duo ultimately crashed out for finishes of 21st and 23rd, respectively. Matheus Leist was trapped in the pack by an early pit road spin that he never recovered from, and Zack Veach struggled with the physical track before finishing a quiet 16th.
Rookies facing issues in early oval starts isn’t unexpected, particularly at a challenging track like the relatively flat one-mile Phoenix oval. Crashes are common, as are finishes in the back half of the field.
But while they were anticipated, the struggles of most series newcomers in Phoenix made Wickens’ run feel even more special. If the 29-year-old wasn’t heavily favored to claim top rookie honors before, he definitely should be now.